Memories Rising with the Flames in Machias

By Sandra Sylvester | Jul 14, 2014

Knox County — Most people in Maine will probably agree that there are two restaurant landmarks located on Route 1. The first is Moody’s in Waldoboro and the second is Helen’s On Rt. 1 just before the dike that crosses the mouth of the Middle River, where it joins the Machias River in Machias. Both restaurants have been in business for over 50 years and both have seen one or more generations carry on the business. I have written about Moody’s before in this space. Today I must bring you the story of a very special place in my heart which burned to the ground this past Friday. That place is Helen’s.

I will bring you my memories of Helen’s later on in this story. First we must report on this terrible fire. Tim Cox of the Bangor Daily News did a terrific job in his reporting of the event. Many of the pictures of the fire come from him. I will highlight his report here, but for the full story, go to the BDN site.

The fire started in the early hours of July 11. Crews from many surrounding towns came to assist in the fire, but they were not able to extinguish the fire, but only contain it. Owners, David and Julie Barker could see the restaurant from their home atop a hill in Machias. Julie heard the sirens, looked out and saw smoke coming from the restaurant, and she and David then drove to the site. At first they thought they might get away with a little smoke damage and only be closed down for a couple weeks or so, but soon the whole restaurant was engulfed. The exact cause of the fire is yet to be determined.

Governor LePage in a news release said, “Helen’s is a Maine landmark…this is a true loss for the owners, David and Julie Barker, as well as the Down East community.”

The estimated loss was $1 million to $1.5 million to rebuild. The owners have insurance and intend to rebuild with a hopeful opening date of next spring. Fifty people are employed at the restaurant during the peak summer season with a weekly payroll of about $10,000, according to Barker. Julie said, “Our only concern is for our Helen’s family—our co-workers.” If you would like to donate to the fund to help out the employees check the end of this blog.

Pictures of the Fire

For pictures of the fire and other pictures of Helen’s, please go to:

 YouTube video:

“Helen’s Tribute”

I cried when I watched this video on YouTube. It seems as though one good memory after another rose with the flames above our dear Helen’s. Check it out on YouTube.

The History of Helen’s and my history with Helen’s

The picture here is of the original Helen’s I remember. When I arrived in Machias to go to college at Washington State Teachers College (now University of Maine at Machias) which stood on a hill above the dam, this Helen’s had been open about 10 years, or since 1950.  I believe these are the original owners standing by the door, Larry and Helen Mugnai. We can assume that Helen gave her name to the restaurant. Sixty-four years later it is still going strong.

Bob and Joan Carter purchased Helen’s in 1976. Since then it has been passed down to one family member after another until David and Julie Barker bought it from his mother in 1983. He is the third family member to operate the restaurant.

Helen’s was originally located up on Main Street in the center of town. Because of the crowds waiting up the street and poor parking, the business was moved to its present location. The Carters also opened the Machias Motor Inn next door to the restaurant in 1988.

My memories of Helen’s are probably the same as the generations of college students who have passed through their doors since 1950. I remember Larry as being a quiet, yet friendly man. I suspect he fed more poor college students than we’ll ever realize. He used to have a small filing box with cards in it with students’ names on them. It was the record of their tab at Helen’s. Once in a while Larry would gently remind a student that their tab might need to be lessened a little, but he was never demanding. As far as I know, when students graduated from WSTC, they always divied up with Larry before they left town. It became a matter of respect for Larry because he was so warmly loved by all of us.

I also remember the boycott of our dorm food program. It was pretty darn awful and we students decided to boycott the service even though we paid for it in our tuition fees. It was a big expense for most of us, but if we could, we’d head down to Helen’s to see what we could manage to eat for supper. At other times we made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; or popped corn in our corn poppers in our room; or made soup in them as well. They were the kind of poppers popular at that time before microwaves when they were metal and round like a regular cooking pot.

The boycott worked eventually. The chief cook was fired and a cafeteria style system was set up so we could pick and choose what we wanted instead of relying on whatever the “family-style” system chose to give us that day.

I also remember one friend who made an arrangement with the school to not pay for school food and instead she ate exclusively at Helen’s. The reason she gave was that the dorm food didn’t agree with her system.

It was a long and cold walk in the winter up and down that hill and across the bridge with that cold wind off the water threatening to blow you over. Very few of us had cars, but we willingly gravitated to our favorite hangout at every opportunity. Helen’s may have gone up in flames, but our memories really didn’t go up in flames too. Most of us, who graduated, even 50 years ago like me, can still see ourselves sitting down amongst our friends to enjoy a meal at Helen’s.

Donations for the Employees

As mentioned before there is a fundraising site for the employees at Helen’s who will be out of work because of the fire. Unless you are a fisherman or lobsterman down that way, jobs are hard to come by. You can find this site at The goal is $20,000 of which $19,734 has been raised to date. However, if the weekly payroll runs to about $10,000 it seems to me that 50 people will need more than that. Therefore, maybe the goal should be broadened.

If you were ever a student of WSTC or UMM, I urge you to support these wonderful people we all came to know and love. If the rest of you can see it in your hearts to support a wonderful landmark institution, so much the better.

Thanks for listening.




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